Processed foods are addictive. That really doesn’t come as a surprise to most of us. It’s the food we usually crave and turn to when we we’ve had a bad day, need immediate satisfaction or don’t want to take the time to prepare a healthy alternative.
We usually equate this with a lack of willpower but in many cases it may actually be a complex cascade of events occurring in the brain that make them difficult to resist. Studies show junk food has the exact same impact on the reward system in the brain as any addictive drug, such as cocaine. Because they cause the same biological responses, those who are susceptible can have the same issues anyone who suffers with addiction has. In one study, junk food increased activation of certain receptors. This is where our emotional responses are regulated and feel good hormones such as dopamine reside.
The reward system
The body is designed to ensure survival. So whatever it takes to survive, the body will encourage. One example is the the primal need to seek out food and water. We eat, satisfy our basic needs, and the brain releases those feel good hormones, like dopamine, in response. Once exposed, and the results enjoyed, the brain is hard wired to seek out more. But unlike healthy foods, today’s junk foods cause a much more powerful reward response than it can get from healthy foods. That means a tub of ice cream is far more rewarding than an apple and the body’s physiological reactions to the two foods favors eating the less nutritious option.
How exactly processed foods set off this chain of events is unknown. Perhaps it’s the fat, sugar or salt content. The way it is processed or the taste, texture or easy accessibility. Whatever the cause, manufacturers specifically devise combinations to make these foods irresistible.
Tolerance and withdrawal
Withdrawal symptoms are the hallmark reactions when the focus of any addiction is stopped. It starts when we get a tolerance to whatever we crave. Tolerance happens when a person no longer responds to a drug in the way they did at first. The initial reaction is significant and encourages further use to achieve another “high”. But this time it takes a higher dose of the drug to achieve the same effect. This escalates with each use, such that more and more of a drug is needed to get the “high” they seek. Just like smoking or illicit drugs, eating processed foods repeatedly releases dopamine. The body demands balance. If it’s released more than normal, the body reacts by removing some of the receptors in order to diminish its output. Now there are less receptors available to react to the drug and get the desired effect. The only other viable option is to eat more processed foods to get the same impact as before. The very definition of tolerance.
Withdrawal occurs when the “high” no longer satisfies and a bigger “fix” is demanded. Now the response is both mental and physical, causing flu-like symptoms, nausea, vomiting, muscle aches, and more.
When dopamine levels drop, anxiety, depression and frustration occur. In response cravings intensify in an attempt to increase dopamine levels again. This is different from simple hunger pangs. These occur when the body senses specific cues like the delicious aroma of apple pie baking in the oven or coffee percolating. On the other hand, when induced by our emotional state we eat to satisfy a dopamine deficiency not because we require nourishment.
Like any addiction this “fix” dominates every aspect of life until it’s satisfied. But this respite only lasts a short period of time before it rears its ugly head again in a never ending, but all consuming viscous cycle. Nobody analyzes what they are eating then. All that matters is appeasing the beast. Any hope of sticking to a healthy diet is usually ignored. This often leads to binging large quantities. Two scoops of ice cream used to be enough, but in order to get the dopamine levels high enough, three are now needed. Walking away after just a taste is no longer possible.
We all get cravings occasionally. It’s when they overwhelm our thoughts and impact our physical state that they become dangerous.
I wish there was a quick and easy answer, but there isn’t. Just like any other addiction it requires hard work, awareness, and usually intervention. Keeping the triggers at bay is a great start; if ice cream, chips, cookies, candy, and other treats are no longer available, healthy options will take their place. They won’t satisfy the same way, or give the same dopamine burst, but they will release an appropriate amount of hormones to satisfy hunger and prevent overeating. As with any addiction, in time that urge will diminish.
Get medical help to define the reasons behind the cravings and destructive eating behaviors. Medications may be an option as well. Joining groups such as overeating anonymous (OA) can give additional support.